Accra — This year's World Food Day celebrations arrived at a time of growing reflection on the performance of Africa's current food security model.
After half a century of independence, Africa remains dependent on food imports unable to feed its people on domestic production alone. And escalating food costs have pushed levels of import expenditure to breaking point.
Only one-third of African countries have enough agriculture export revenue to pay for food imports bills while total food imports are increasing on average at 3.4% a year. Despite Africa's abundant land and resources, food insecurity is a common problem and importing food not only drains limited national budgets but can have a negative effect for low-income households who struggle to buy basic food items. Pockets of severe food insecurity continue to pose challenges to African governments in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and food often becomes a weapon of war.
In the last few years, however, a number of African countries have been prioritising efforts tackle the problem and achieve food self-sufficiency once more.
The impact of agricultural liberalisation
Although Africa was once a net exporter of agricultural products, prices of raw commodities (primarily coffee, cocoa, and spices) collapsed in the early 1980s. Liberalisation, pushed by the the accepted logic of the Washington Consensus, led to the removal of government subsidies on inputs and food prices, devalued currencies, and deregulated prices.
The hope was that the market, freer now of 'distortionary state interference', would help. But without support from the state, local farmers were left unable to compete with foreign crops and products. African food self-sufficiency plummeted while the amount channelled into the region rose sharply. At the same time, Africa has suffered from poor agricultural performance, low investment and weak infrastructure. By some calculations, Africa spends $19 billion each year on food imports.
Tipping point: the food crises of 2007-2008
Although global food prices had been increasing since 2003, it was not until 2007-2008 that a concerted popular backlash grew against the increases in basic food stuffs. For the first time, the food crisis was driven not by weather shocks or conflict, but by record prices provoked by spiralling trends on international markets - a result of record fuel prices and widespread speculation.
Many African households found themselves exposed to the devastating effect of rapid food price inflation and the proportion of household income spent on food reached 54% in Tanzania and 62% in the Comoros. Overall food price hikes caused the import bill for low-income food deficit countries to rise by more than a third.
In the face of this, arguments for importing food due to competiveness and affordability were suddenly proven groundless, and governments moved to shore up political support with measures that could protect hard-hit and politically important urban consumers from the effects of further price volatility.
Renewed strategies for food self-sufficiency based on principles of national and regional food sovereignty came to the fore, and government commitment towards scaling up domestic production can be seen reflected in the rising support for a change in policy direction.
Shifting sands: national initiatives for food sovereignty
Under the leadership of the late president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, the African Union threw its weight behind food self-sufficiency for member-states through initiatives to boost production and curtail import market growth.
Countries such as Senegal established national programmes for food sovereignty with the launch of GOANA which set the ambitious objective of national self-sufficiency by 2015 through a targeted 250% increase in rice production alongside a tenfold increase in the production of cassava.
Similarly, Liberia is attempting to move away from the 100% dependence it had on foreign food supplies at the start of its post-war transition. According to Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth, a new direction for food security is now being forged: "Before the war, we were two-thirds of the way in producing our major staple [rice]. After the war, we went back to 100% importation. But right now, we're up at least to one-third of what we consume - we've decreased importation by one third". The introduction of high-yielding cassava seeds constitutes one key component of Liberia's national plan.
Indeed, at the heart of these strategies to increase food production are tools to substantially improve crop yields. Increased fertiliser use is high on the agenda of several African states and fertiliser markets are expanding. First Bank of Nigeria reported upward demand from clients for the financing of fertiliser storage facilities while leading foreign fertiliser producers such as the Norwegian based Yara has set its sights on Africa as a medium-term growth market.
Political will and financial investment
African food market growth and profitability are forecast to be concentrated in emerging local and regional African urban markets with demand expected to grow from $50 billion to $150 billion by the year 2030. Larger domestic food markets are regarded as beneficial for widening food distribution coverage and enhancing food access with regional institutions seen to be paramount in facilitating channels to promote intra-regional trade.
Prospects for Africa's food sovereignty appear healthier than in recent history. Political pressure for measures that protect consumers from the risk of volatile food imports come at a time of greater assertiveness on behalf of the African leadership on the direction of agriculture development.
However, commitment for a new direction in reducing food dependency will require a great deal more than political rhetoric. Africa's reliance on external food supplies is substantially higher than other developing regions meaning that achieving food self-sufficiency would require a remarkable effort based on sizeable financial investment. In the absence of these, African governments may be forced to answer hard questions on the region's failure to feed itself for some time to come.
Joan Nimarkoh is a freelance writer and journalist working in Accra along with her role as a policy consultant for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Joan graduated from Leeds University in Political Studies, in 2004 and from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) in 2007 with an Msc in Development Studies. Her interests include African politics and economics, agriculture develpoment, democratization, and climate change.